The News Editorial Analysis 14th November 2021

The News Editorial Analysis 14th November 2021

‘Mere smell of alcohol does not mean that a person is incapable of driving’

Dharminder Singh, a resident of Sector 37, stated in his complaint that he got his car insured with New India Assurance for the period, February 9, 2016, to February 8, 2017, for a sum of Rs 5,32,304.

“MERE SMELL of alcohol cannot lead to an inference that a person is incapable of taking care of himself/herself or to drive a vehicle,” said the Consumer Forum while finding deficiency in service of an insurance company which denied the claim of a city resident, whose car hit a cyclist and also got damaged itself. The Forum has ordered New India Assurance to pay Rs 49,137 along with 12 per cent interest from the date of repudiation and Rs 5,000 as compensation for harassment and Rs 7,500 as litigation cost.

Dharminder Singh, a resident of Sector 37, stated in his complaint that he got his car insured with New India Assurance for the period, February 9, 2016, to February 8, 2017, for a sum of Rs 5,32,304. In the meantime, the car, driven by his driver Santokh Singh, met with an accident on August 20, 2016, with a cyclist due to which it suffered damages and the cyclist succumbed to injuries. Also, a case was registered at Sector 17 PS, Chandigarh.

The complainant then informed the insurance company and the vehicle was taken for repair where the surveyor assessed the loss. However, the claim was not settled even after six months as the insurance company raised a query about the driver being allegedly under the influence of alcohol when the accident occurred. Following this, Dharminder stated that his driver Santokh Singh had normal permissible level of alcohol in his breath and examination by the medical officer, Government Multi Specialty Hospital, Sector 16, Chandigarh, revealed that he was not under any the effect of alcohol. But the claim was repudiated by the insurance firm on the ground that the driver was intoxicated at the time of the accident. Following this, Dharminder lodged a complaint at the Consumer Forum against the insurance company.

The insurance firm, in its reply to the Forum, said the terms and conditions of the insurance policy had been flouted and therefore, the claim was rightly repudiated on the ground that Santokh Singh was under the influence of liquor during the accident and this fact had also been incorporated in the FIR.

But the Forum, after going by the facts, felt that the insurance company had not been able to produce any concrete evidence in the shape of medical test report of the driver to prove that he was driving under the influence at the time of the accident and was incapable of taking care of himself or drive.

Dharminder also submitted a medial examination report of the driver recorded by the medical officer of GMSH-16, wherein it was specifically mentioned that Santokh had consumed alcohol but he had a strait gait. So, the insurance company cannot take refuge of the FIR to contend that the driver was under the influence of liquor and was not in a position to drive. Moreover, according to Sections 185 and 202 of the Motor Vehicles Act, a person would be considered intoxicated only if he is found to have more than 30 mg of alcohol in his blood per 100 ml and in this case, no test report of the driver had been placed on record to show that the Blood Alcohol Concentration had exceeded the legally stipulated limit, stated the Forum in the order.

Tripping discoms, taxpayer paid bailouts

Can there be a market of sellers without paying customers? For decades India’s political class persisted with the “extend and pretend” model of reforms in the power sector.

The News Editorial Analysis 14th November 2021

Can there be a market of sellers without paying customers? For decades India’s political class persisted with the “extend and pretend” model of reforms in the power sector. The question is whether bankrupt SEBs can power the promise of 24×7 Electricity for economic growth on an unsustainable economic model?

In November 2000, three MPs asked the government about the mounting losses of state electricity boards. The then Minister of Power Jaywantiben Mehta informed the Lok Sabha that in 1999-2000 SEBs had recorded losses of over Rs 14,900 crore. She revealed that instead of earning a minimum rate of return of 3 per cent on their assets as required under Section 59 of the Electricity Supply Act, 1948, almost all SEBs are showing “negative returns”.

In the two decades since the picture has worsened. In March 2010 the losses of SEBs after receiving subsidies stood at Rs 45,382 crore. Accumulated losses stood at Rs 1.5 lakh crore. To fund these losses SEBs had to borrow. The outstanding loans stood at Rs 2.66 lakh crore. In November 2021 PFC’s report on state utilities reveals that as of March 2019-20 the losses of SEBs post receipt of subsidies was Rs 38,093 crore. Accumulated losses stood at Rs 5.07 lakh crore, outstanding debt of the state utilities touched Rs 5.14 lakh crore.

Every few years the Government of India is confronted by the bankruptcy of SEBs. Bailout packages followed as in 2000 and 2012, and in 2015 the Modi government came up with UDAY which was presented as an incentive package. In 2021 there is a new bailout with an allocation of Rs 3.03 lakh crore spread over five years.

Every bailout is a combination of the clichéd carrot and stick policy — states are goaded to implement a plethora, virtually a laundry list, of much-needed and pending reforms to make the sector viable in return for moolah, paid for of course by the hapless taxpayer. What is noteworthy is the consistency with which the central conditions persist in each bailout.

In 2001 chief ministers of all states agreed to 100 per cent metering of all consumers, elimination of power theft, upgradation of T&D systems and reduction in the gap between the cost of power supplied and revenue realised. In 2012 states were offered grants on reduction of theft/AT&C losses, reduction in the gap between cost and revenue realised and metering. The 2015 package required the willing states to achieve improved operational and financial efficiencies – aka (AT&C) losses, cost to revenue gap and institution of metering. 

Most commitments have slid down a slippery political slope. Consider the quest to reduce AT&C losses – essentially the difference between the cost of supply and revenue collected. Globally transmission and distribution losses range between 2 and 8 per cent. In India AT&C losses are a euphemism for technical inefficiencies and brazen billed-and-unbilled theft. In January 2019 Power Minister R K Singh informed the Rajya Sabha that “reduction of 1 per cent in T&D losses results in a saving of Rs 4,146.60 crore”.

So what has been the progress? In 2001 AT&C losses were around 26.5 per cent. Two decades later they are still at 20.9 per cent. The crux of failure rests in what Milton Friedman observed in the mid-sixties. He said that the problem in India is that too many objectives were bunched in the design of policy. This would be true of the bailout packages which aimed to address issues ranging from installation of regulatory issues to induction of metering to improving revenue realisation.

The viability of the power sector demands closing the gap between the cost of power supplied and revenue realised. This is haunted by politicised sloth and lack of competition in the last mile of delivery and collection. This calls for opening up distribution for competition. Given the resistance to privatisation this column had in 2015 suggested setting up of a national discom owned in part by say the NTPC, Power Grid and PFC to compete with state utilities to install efficiency. More immediately it is necessary to induct smart tech. It is true that vulnerable sections of consumers need subsidies or subvention in costs.

Equally it is critical to recognise that those who promise must pay and that there are technological solutions available – both for arriving at the cost of supply and payment of subsidies. Unlike the past there is now the Aadhaar-based direct benefit transfer system available. Add to this the e-Rupi, launched recently, which is designed for “person and purpose-specific” utility. 

Take the issue of free power for farmers. Why not deploy the learnings from pilot projects, use smart metering to arrive at the average consumption of the farmer to bill the farmer and pay for the same using a prepaid e-Rupi coupon riding on the tried and tested DBT system. The same could be deployed for supplying power to BPL families. It will enable transparency as the cost of political intervention will be reflected in the budgets of state governments.

Repeated bailouts are both the cause and consequence of the extend and pretend band of incrementalism. It is useful to remember that there can be no equity — political or economic — without efficiency. The sector’s viability is central to energy security and to India’s aspiration of a $5 trillion economy. 

At peak of pandemic, only five per cent of hospitalizations under PMJAY: Study

The latest report, however, showed that shockingly in Gujarat and Punjab, with 14.7 lakh and 6 lakh beneficiaries, respectively, not a single hospitalisation was for Covid treatment.

The Narendra Modi government’s flagship health insurance scheme — Pradhan Mantri Jan Aarogya Yojana — may have failed to help a majority of its beneficiaries during the worst of the Covid pandemic, when most of the people were struggling for access to healthcare, an independent analysis has shown.

The analysis carried out by Jeevan Raksha, a public-private partnership initiative, has found that only 5,85,750 of a total of 107,05,251 in 17 states — or just about 5% of the total hospitalisations were for Covid treatment between January 2020 and June 2021. PMJAY launched in September 2018 assures free hospitalisation coverage of upto Rs 5 lakh to nearly 60 crore poor Indians.

The latest report, however, showed that shockingly in Gujarat and Punjab, with 14.7 lakh and 6 lakh beneficiaries, respectively, not a single hospitalisation was for Covid treatment. In contrast, Maharashtra fared the best among states and every two of three patients who got the hospitalisation benefit under the scheme in the state, got treated for Covid-19. 

The data has been analysed by the project, a partnership between management firm Proxima and the Public Health Foundation of India, from 17 major states that include the eight empowered action groups or socio-economically backward states. “The data clearly indicates the current status of PMJAY implementation as well as quality and integrity of some of the disclosed data,” said the report.

R S Sharma, CEO of National Health Authority which implements the PMJAY, was not available for comment despite attempts to reach him.  The analysis, done meticulously with state-level data, pointed out that during January 2020 and June, 2021 over 3 crore Covid patients were traced and treated, while 4 lakh people succumbed.  

During the same period, over 1.7 crore PMJAY beneficiaries availed treatment under the scheme but “surprisingly”, over 95% were reported as non-Covid treatment, it said, adding that only 5.85 lakh hospital authorisation were reported as Covid treatment.

Among backward states, 27 lakh beneficiaries have been authorised for treatment under PMJAY, but only 61,500 were treated for the disease. “This means during the Covid period, when people were struggling to get hospital beds for Covid treatment, 98% of the hospitalisations under the PMJAY Scheme was for treating non-Covid patients,” the analysis has said. The story was similar in Bihar, UP and  Jharkhand.

Africa’s ‘Great Green Wall’ shifts focus to hold off desert

The Great Green Wall that was once envisioned as a way for Africa to fight climate change has stalled

The idea was striking in its ambition: African countries aimed to plant trees in a nearly 5,000-mile line spanning the entire continent, creating a natural barrier to hold back the Sahara Desert as climate change swept the sands south.

The project called the Great Green Wall began in 2007 with a vision for the trees to extend like a belt across the vast Sahel region, from Senegal in the west to Djibouti in the east, by 2030. But as temperatures rose and rainfall diminished, millions of the planted trees died.

Efforts to rein in the desert continue in Senegal on a smaller scale. On the western end of the planned wall, Ibrahima Fall walks under the cool shade of dozens of lime trees, watering them with a hose as yellow chicks scurry around his feet. Just beyond the green orchard and a village is a desolate, arid landscape.

The citrus crop provides a haven from the heat and sand that surround it. Outside the low village walls, winds whip sand into the air, inviting desertification, a process that wrings the life out of fertile soil and changes it into desert, often because of drought or deforestation.

Only 4% of the Great Green Wall’s original goal has been met, and an estimated $43 billion would be needed to achieve the rest. With prospects for completing the barrier on time dim, organizers have shifted their focus from planting a wall of trees to trying a mosaic of smaller, more durable projects to stop desertification, including community-based efforts designed to improve lives and help the most vulnerable agriculture.

“The project that doesn’t involve the community is doomed to failure,” says Diegane Ndiaye, who is part of a group known as SOS Sahel, which has helped with planting programs in Senegal and other countries across the Sahel, a broad geographic zone between the Sahara in the north and the more temperate African savanna to the south.

The programs focus on restoring the environment and reviving economic activity in Sahel villages, Ndiaye said.

With the loss of rainfall and the advance of the desert, “this strip of the Sahel is a very vulnerable area to climate change,” he said. “So we should have projects that are likely to rebuild the environment … fix the dunes and also help protect the vegetable-growing area.”

On Senegal’s Atlantic Coast, filao trees stretch in a band from Dakar up to the northern city of St. Louis, forming a curtain that protects the beginning of Green Wall region, which also grows more than 80% of Senegal’s vegetables. The sky-reaching branches tame the winds tearing in from the ocean.

This reforestation project started in the 1970s, but many trees were cut down for wood, and work to replant them has been more recent. More trees are also planted in front of dunes near the water in an effort to protect the dunes and keep them from moving.

“We have had a lot of reforestation programs that today have not yielded much because it is often done with great fanfare” and not with good planning, Ndiaye said.

Fall, the 75-year-old chief of his village, planted the citrus orchard in 2016, putting the trees near a water source on his land. His is one of 800 small orchards in six communes of a town called Kebemer.

“We once planted peanuts and that wasn’t enough,” he said in the local Wolof language. “This orchard brings income that allows me to take care of my family.” He said he can produce 20 to 40 kilos of limes per week during peak season.

Enriched by the trees, the soil has also grown tomatoes and onions.

The village has used profits from the orchard to replace straw homes with cement brick structures and to buy more sheep, goats and chickens. It also added a solar panel to help pump water from a communal well, sparing villagers from having to pay more for water in the desert.

African Development Bank President Akinwumi A. Adesina spoke about the importance of stopping desertification in the Sahel during the United Nations’ COP26 global climate conference. He announced a commitment from the bank to mobilize $6.5 billion toward the Great Green Wall by 2025.

The newest projects in Senegal are circular gardens known in the Wolof language as “tolou keur.” They feature a variety of trees that are planted strategically so that the larger ones protect the more vulnerable.

The gardens’ curving rows hold moringa, sage, papaya and mango trees that are resistant to dry climates. They are planted so their roots grow inward to improve water retention in the plot.

Senegal has 20 total circular gardens, each one adapted to the soil, culture and needs of individual communities so they can grow much of what they need. Early indications are that they are thriving in the Great Green Wall region. Solar energy helps provide electricity for irrigation.

Jonathan Pershing, deputy special envoy for climate at the U.S. State Department, visited Senegal as part of an Africa trip last month, saying the U.S. wants to partner with African nations to fight climate change.

“The desert is encroaching. You see it really moving south,” Pershing said.

In terms of the Great Green Wall project, he said, “I don’t think that very many people thought it was going to go very far,” including himself. But there are indications of progress, as seen in the community projects.

“It has a global benefit, and people are prepared to make those kinds of long-term investments through their children and their families, which I think is a hallmark of what we need to do in other climate arenas.”

Curbs in polluted Delhi after SC moots lockdown

All schools in Delhi will remain closed for a week beginning Monday as part of steps announced to tackle air pollution in the Capital. All construction activity has been prohibited and Government employees will work from home. Private offices too have been advised to follow suit.

This follows an emergency meeting convened by Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal on Saturday to assess the impact of air pollution.

Earlier in the morning, a Special Bench of the Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice N.V. Ramana, assembled to urge the Centre and the Delhi Government to take “emergency measures”, even proposing a two-day lockdown, to bring air quality back to normal in a capital choked by pollution.

The Delhi Government, Mr. Kejriwal’s office said, would prepare a proposal on imposing a lockdown till the situation improved and would submit it to the court.

“Do you know how bad the situation is? People have to wear masks even at home… Think of a two-day lockdown… Reports said air is ‘severe’ in Delhi and may become worse in another two or three days… You have to take immediate measures… ,” CJI Ramana addressed Solicitor General Tushar Mehta.

Govt. under pressure to revisit ‘travel bubble’ policy

High fares, fewer flights cripple international travel to India

With airfares for returning students and families from Europe and North America doubling and even quadrupling this winter, and permitted flights from a limited 28 countries running packed, the Union Government is facing pressure from many quarters, including foreign embassies and the tourism industry, to restore regular international flights. These flights had been cancelled due to the COVID pandemic in March 2020.

Diplomatic sources told The Hindu that a number of embassies have written to the Ministry of External Affairs and Ministry of Civil Aviation demanding an end to what they see as an “unfair” system, where only those countries that the government has chosen to sign “air travel bubble” agreements with are able to run flights, and even those are limited by the Government’s reciprocal agreements.

Further the agreements are meant to be only “end to end”, i.e. not valid for onward travel to a third country, meaning that travellers often have to break their journeys at multiple points to travel to a destination to which India doesn’t permit a direct flight. At a recent event in the capital, Minister of Civil Aviation Jyotiraditya Scindia faced several questions from ambassadors and high commissioners on the issue, and was “besieged” by requests to normalise flights to pre-COVID levels, according to attendees.

“There is a general feeling that air bubbles have dragged on for far too long. International flights could reopen in December-January. The thinking in the government has changed recently as COVID cases are on the wane,” one official told The Hindu, conceding that the government is now feeling the pressure to reconsider its policy. With nearly 100 countries now accepting Indians vaccinated with WHO-approved Covishield and Covaxin, travel agents and airlines are also asking why India is not rationalising flights, even suggesting that the government is holding out for renegotiating its air service agreements.

Stepwell in Qutb Shahi complex restored

‘Probably one of the earliest structures here; might pre-date the necropolis’

In the marvellous garden of a stucco work necropolis of the Qutb Shahi tombs, it is a deep stepwell of dressed granite. While curvy flowy lines and stucco decorations are the norm in the tombs complex, the stepwell is all about straight lines and minimalistic design. Recently restored to the way it appears in archival images from 19th century by the Department of Archaeology and Museums, the effort has been aided by US Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation.

“It is probably one of the earliest structures here, along with the Idgah and might pre-date the necropolis. The other boalis (stepwells) are built on rocky outcrops. This one is built into the earth with huge blocks of hand-dressed stone blocks and masonry,” informs Ratish Nanda of Aga Khan Trust for Culture, which is working in coordination with the State government to restore the tombs complex. The Qutb Shahis ruled the Golconda kingdom between 1518 and 1687.

Restoring a deep stepwell presents its own challenges. “Portions of the stone blocks had bulged out and required to be reset; this was dangerous due to the depth of the baoli. We also needed to channelise rainwater into it, requiring extensive restoration of earth levels all around out,” says Mr Nanda.

A photograph clicked during the restoration work shows the intimidating depth of the well and dealing with large blocks of dressed stones that needed to be moved around. Above the ground, large blocks of the stones were also displaced as the well was not in use for a long time. The well reaches to the depth of 20 metres or about 60 feet — the same height as a six-storey structure. Idgah baoli is among the seven wells inside the complex, being restored as part of conservation efforts.

‘Prioritise threat-hunting strategies for cyber attacks’

Search for signs of breaches, says ISRO Chairman

With enterprises worldwide gripped by cyber threats, Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) Chairman K. Sivan has advocated prioritising threat-hunting strategies over passive damage control measures to thwart emerging advanced persistent attacks (ATP) in the cyber world.

Delivering the keynote address at the concluding day of the 14th c0c0n cyber security and hacking conference organised by the Kerala Police on Saturday, Dr. Sivan said many critical infrastructures in the country had come under targeted cyber attacks during the last few years. The Indian Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT-in), which functions under the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, handled 11,58,208 cyber security incidents in 2020 alone. Of these, 25,969 cases were of website defacements.

“It is generally felt most of these attacks are being carried out by State-sponsored hackers. We can no longer afford to believe that our security measures are perfect and impenetrable,” he pointed out.

Dr. Sivan, who is also Secretary of the Department of Space, said traditional reactive defence systems were insufficient in countering such ATPs that affected major government organisations, financial institutions, power, energy and telecom sectors; and strategic and public enterprises across the world.

“The effective way to ensure IT infrastructure is protected against APTs is to search for signs of breaches and compromises within the network. It is vital to constantly look for attacks that get past security systems and catch intrusions in progress rather than intervening after attackers have completed their objectives to cause significant damage.

“Threat hunting should ideally become part of the IT security arsenal of each organisation,” Dr. Sivan said.

Nomadic tribal group gets Aadhaar

Kattupaniya members were deprived of Government incentives so far

Members of Kattupaniya, a nomadic tribal group that was rehabilitated from caves near the South Wayanad-Nilambur Forest Division in Kerala a few years ago, have enrolled for Aadhaar cards with the intervention of the District Legal Services Authority (DLSA).

As many as 33 members of the vulnerable tribal group were rehabilitated from the Nilambur forest at Erattakkundu Colony near Attamala seven years ago. However, the details of 20 members have not been entered in government records yet.

District Sub Judge K. Rajesh, who is also the Secretary of DLSA, Wayanad, visited the tribal hamlet a few weeks ago as part of the Pan India Legal Awareness and Outreach Campaign of the National Legal Services Authority. During the visit, Mr. Rajesh was told that the tribal group had been deprived of Government incentives, including free ration during the pandemic.

As many as 18 children who were born in the hamlet do not have birth certificates as their mothers were not admitted to hospitals for delivery. In the absence of birth certificates, Aadhaar cards could not be issued to them, Mr. Rajesh told The Hindu.

Since members of Kattupaniya do not mingle with those outside their group, Aadhaar seeding could not be done for them. “Later, we decided to organise a camp in the hamlet to issue Aadhaar cards and other documents like ration cards and bank accounts with the support of the district administration, Tribal Development Department, Akshaya centre at Thinapuram, and officials of the Vellarimala branch of the Kerala Grameen Bank,” he said.

Though Aadhaar seeding was done for 14 persons, six left to the nearby forest owing to the presence of outsiders. Bank accounts were opened for 14 persons.

Though the Tribal Development Department had constructed three concrete houses for members of the group, they still live in make-shift huts attached to the houses, Integrated Tribal Development Project officer K.C. Cheriyan said.

Glasgow summit runs into extra time

‘Adaptation fund’ money from developed countries continues to be a sticking point

The 26th edition of the United Nations Conference of Parties (COP) at Glasgow, Scotland, is yet to seal a final agreement, with talks extending into Saturday.

The meeting was formally scheduled to end on Friday (November 12) at 6 p.m. local time (GMT).

The Glasgow summit ends when an agreement, or more specifically a cover text of the agreement, issued by the COP Secretariat led by incumbent President Alok Sharma, is agreed upon by all members. That consensus has been elusive so far.

The latest version of the agreement is a draft issued at 8 a.m., local time, on Saturday. Later versions of the draft differ only subtly from previous versions, with a line dropped out, a word added in, a verb modified, but it is these changes that frame the future course of action that signatory countries undertake.

India intervened on Saturday to state that it was not very happy with the existing text, especially on sections that suggested the phasing out of subsidies for coal. “I’m afraid consensus remains elusive…It is known that some countries have achieved wealth and prosperity from fossil fuels….targeting any particular sector is uncalled for. Every country will achieve net zero as per their own circumstances. Developing countries have a right to their fair share of the global carbon space,” said Environment Minister, Bhupender Yadav.

A key demand from several island nations and countries in the African Union has been the establishment of a “Glasgow Facility” that would provide money to countries already suffering from the impacts of climate change. This money would be part of an “adaptation fund” to be financed by developed countries. However, the latest text doesn’t commit to any such facility and only promises regular “dialogues” and “technical assistance” for establishing such a facility.

The draft, however, “Urges developed country Parties to fully deliver on the USD 100 billion goal urgently and through to 2025 and emphasizes the importance of transparency in the implementation of their pledges.”

Developed countries had committed to providing $100 billion annually by 2020. This was a clause enshrined in 2009 but none of it has actually made its way to developing countries and continues to be a major bone of contention.

India has said that it will take on ambitious targets of achieving net zero by 2070 or shifting quicker to renewable energy sources by 2030, only if money is forthcoming. The draft also exhorts developed countries to double collective adaptation finance from 2019 levels by 2025 and to scale up greenhouse gas emission cuts that ought to be announced latest by next year at COP27 in Egypt.

India has demanded one trillion dollars over the next decade from developed countries to adapt to and mitigate the challenges from global warming, and has made this a condition for delivering on climate commitments made by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

U.S. lawmakers meet Modi ahead of S400 delivery

MEA statement avoids mention of Russian missile delivery system, focuses on regional concerns

Ahead of the expected year-end delivery of the sophisticated Russian S400 surface-to-air missile defence system, Prime Minister Narendra Modi met a high-power U.S. Congressional delegation here on Saturday.

The Russian missile system will increase India’s chances of coming under CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act) but official statements issued after Saturday’s meeting avoided mention of the matter.

A statement from the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) said the delegation led by Senator John Cornyn discussed issues related to the developments in South Asia and the Indo-Pacific region.

“Prime Minister appreciated the consistent support of the U.S. Congress in deepening the India-U.S. strategic partnership ,” stated a press release that was issued by the MEA after the meeting.

Following the meeting, Senator Cornyn, who is the co-founder and co-Chair of the Senate caucus on India and Indian-Americans, said that both sides discussed “pandemic and supply chain stability.”

The meeting with Mr. Modi took place a day after External Affairs Minister Dr. S. Jaishankar hosted the delegation and discussed Afghanistan. Though official statements on both occasions chose to avoid mention of the Russian missile system, three Republican Senators have already moved a Bill to exempt India from possible CAATSA sanctions for taking the delivery of the S400 missile system.

The visiting Congressional delegation conveyed a positive outlook of India-U.S. relationship.

“Prime Minister and the visiting delegation noted the increasing convergence of strategic interests between the two strategic partners and expressed desire to further enhance cooperation with an aim to promote global peace and stability,” MEA said.

Stop misleading ads on crypto: Govt.

PM chairs meet to consider the regulatory prospects for cryptocurrencies

Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Saturday chaired a meeting to consider the regulatory prospects for cryptocurrencies with the top brass of the Reserve Bank of India and the Ministries of Home Affairs and Finance, where a strong consensus was reached to stop ‘attempts to mislead the youth through over-promising & non-transparent advertising’.

Noting that unregulated crypto markets cannot be allowed to become avenues for money laundering and terror financing, the PM and other attendees concluded that a close watch and pro-active steps are necessary for the sector, senior Government sources said.

“There was consensus also that the steps taken in this field by the Government will be progressive and forward looking,” a source said, stressing that the Government will continue to pro-actively engage with experts and other stakeholders.

“Since the issue cuts across individual countries’ borders, it was felt that it will also require global partnerships and collective strategies,” the source added.

The PM-steered meeting comes ahead of a Parliamentary committee hearing on Monday, November 15, with industry experts on the challenges and opportunities that cryptocurrencies throw up.

The Finance Ministry has been tight-lipped on the progress of a Cryptocurrency Bill which had been readied for the Union Cabinet’s approval as far back as August, as per earlier statements by Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman. The Bill is now expected to be tabled in the winter session of Parliament that begins on November 29.

On Friday, the Ministry’s top brass shied away from queries about who would be held responsible if investors betting on crypto assets were to make heavy losses.

With advertisements for cryptocurrency exchanges and trading on their platforms proliferating across the country, particularly during the recent cricket events, the Government has been expected to bring in some regulatory framework to rein them in and ensure investors don’t lose their savings. In the absence of a clear regulatory framework, even as several investors, especially the youth, have been betting on cryptocurrencies for seemingly easy returns, there’s still uncertainty on the Government’s treatment for the same.

While the Supreme Court has lifted the ban on trading of cryptocurrencies imposed by the central bank, the RBI continues to have concerns over them.

Local bodies receive funds for healthcare

Finance Ministry releases ₹8,453.92 crore on the recommendation of the 15th Finance Commission

The Department of Expenditure, Ministry of Finance, has released an amount of ₹8,453.92 crore as health sector grant for rural and urban local bodies of 19 States, including Andhra Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Bihar and Chhattisgarh, according to a release issued by the Union Government on Saturday.

The grants have been released as per the recommendations of the Fifteenth Finance Commission.

The commission, in its report for the period from 2021-22 to 2025-26, had recommended a total grant of ₹4,27,911 crore to local governments. The grants recommended by the commission inter alia include health grants of ₹70,051 crore. Of this amount, ₹43,928 crore has been recommended for rural local bodies and ₹26,123 crore for urban local bodies.

These grants are meant to strengthen healthcare systems and plug critical gaps at the primary healthcare level.

The commission has also identified interventions that will directly lead to strengthening the primary health infrastructure and facilities in both rural and urban areas and earmarked grants for each intervention.

These interventions include support for diagnostic infrastructure to the primary healthcare facilities in rural areas (₹16,377 crore), block-level public health units in rural areas (₹5,279 crore), construction of buildings at sub centres, PHCs, CHCs in rural areas (₹7,167 crore), among others.

The release said that the health grants recommended to be released in the financial year 2021-22 total ₹13,192 crore and includes ₹8,273 crore for rural and ₹4,919 crore for urban local bodies.

“Rural and urban local bodies can play a key role in the delivery of primary healthcare services, especially at the ‘cutting-edge’ level and help in achieving the objective of universal healthcare. Strengthening the local governments in terms of resources, health infrastructure and capacity building can enable them to play a catalytic role in epidemics and pandemics too,” said the release.

Health grants to the remaining nine States will be released after proposals are received from them through the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare.

Was it really a black hole that the EHT imaged in 2019?

The debate among physicists takes off over alternative possibilities such as naked singularities into the realms of time travel and loops of time

In 2019, astronomers of the Event Horizon Telescope captured the first ever image of a supermassive black hole (M87*) which was located at the centre of a galaxy Messier 87 (M87). This black hole is calculated to be 6.5 billion times the Sun’s mass and is 55 million light years away from the Earth. The discovery set the world of astronomy on fire and also found a mention in the “popular information” section of the announcement of the Nobel Prize in physics for 2020.

Now, a paper published in The European Physical Journal C brings in an alternative explanation for the compact object that was imaged by the Event Horizon Telescope. The authors say it (M87*) is not necessarily a black hole but could even be a “naked singularity with a gravitomagnetic monopole.”

When stars much more massive than the Sun reach the end of their lives, they collapse under their own gravity, and the product of this collapse, most astronomers believe is a black hole. A black hole has two parts: At its core is a singularity – a point that is infinitely dense, as all the remnant mass of the star is compressed into this point. Then there is the event horizon – an imaginary surface surrounding the singularity, and the gravity of the object is such that once anything enters this surface, it is trapped forever. Not even light can escape the pull of the singularity once it crosses the event horizon. That is why, we cannot see the singularity at the heart of a black hole but only see points outside the event horizon.

Troublesome sibling

In many scenarios of stellar collapse, the event horizon does not form, and the singularity is exposed to the outside, without any event horizon shielding it. Pankaj S. Joshi, a specialist in general theory of relativity and cosmology, calls this “naked singularity” a “troublesome sibling” of a black hole in an article by him in Scientific American. If this weird object should exist, observers can, in principle, see the bare, or “naked” singularity as it is called. While many physicists object because of some seriously problematic issues associated with the solutions, these nevertheless exist, puzzling researchers, perhaps embarrassing them. Prof. Joshi is the Founding Director of International Center for Cosmology and Advisor, Charusat University, Anand, in Gujarat, and is not involved in the work under discussion.

In the above paper, Chandrachur Chakraborty, from the Department of Physics, Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, and Kavli Institute of Astronomy and Astrophysics, Peking University, Beijing, China, and his collaborators show that M87* could be either a black hole or a naked singularity and each of these possibilities could be plain or coupled with what is called a gravitomagnetic monopole. In all, that leaves four possibilities in principle.

Monopoles and gravity

In the nineteenth century, James Clerk Maxwell unified electricity and magnetism as one combined phenomenon, showing that light is an electromagnetic wave. But there is an asymmetry between electricity and magnetism. While positive and negative electric charges can be found to exist independently, the poles of a magnet are always found in pairs, north and south bound together. Dr Chakraborty draws upon an analogy between gravitational force and electromagnetism to explain that in 1963, Newman, Tamburino and Unti (NUT) proposed a theoretical concept called a “gravito-magnetic charge” also called a gravitomagnetic monopole.

“We have shown that M87* could be a black hole (with or without gravitomagnetic monopole) or a naked singularity (with or without gravitomagnetic monopole) … The Event Horizon Telescope collaboration mapped it to a black hole only and did also not consider that it might contain a gravitomagnetic monopole,” says Dr Chakraborty.

But this is where a difficult situation arises. When you allow the NUT-like solutions, there is a possibility of “closed timelike loops.” These are regions in parameter space of spacetime in which the past merges with the future allowing many bizarre situations. Hence, this solution comes in for strong criticism from physicists.

“The Kerr and the Schwarzschild solutions of Einstein’s equations [namely black holes with spin and having an event horizon] are considered appropriate for describing astrophysical black holes, like the one that has been recently imaged in M87. However, the Kerr-NUT solutions describing gravitomagnetic monopoles are not regarded in the same way,” says Joseph Samuel, a physicist from Bengaluru-based International Centre of Theoretical Sciences, who has worked in General theory of Relativity and Cosmology. “These solutions suffer from a pathology known as closed timelike curves. In such spacetimes, time is a periodic variable [that is, everything repeats after a period of time]. One can travel into the past and create logical contradictions by killing off one’s ancestors,” Prof. Samuel adds.

Prof. Joshi has this to say. “Some important solutions to Einstein equations do admit closed timelike curves. Despite this, the solutions have been studied because they have some other useful or important or interesting features. So, you have to take them in that spirit. This is why the so-called wormhole solutions that also admit closed timelike curves are very much under study today.”

Another approach

There is another approach. Why discard the entire solution? Only those regions of parameter space that give rise to the closed timelike loops could be thrown away. This is suggested by Prof. Joshi. “Not all solutions of Einstein equations have closed time like curves, but some have… If you do not like closed time like curves then you have to discard away these solutions. It is as simple as that. That is the status of the theory right now,” he says, clarifying that not all naked singularity solutions have closed timelike curves, many of them do respect causality.

Thus, an old debate resurfaces with this paper: to throw out these solutions or keep them and handle them carefully.

Zika virus outbreaks, an opportunity to improve healthcare in India

The lab capacity for COVID-19, developed in the last 18 months, needs to be optimally used to conduct testing for other emerging infections

Viruses are ubiquitous, most are innocuous and some, such as SARS CoV-2, turn out to be pernicious. Zika virus, first detected in rhesus monkeys in the Zika forest in Uganda in 1947 and then identified in humans after a few years, appears to be re-positioning itself. For the first 60 years after detection, only 14 human cases had been reported, from Asia and Tropical Africa. The first ever outbreak of Zika virus was reported in 2007 in the island of Yap (a federated state in Micronesia) in the Pacific. Zika virus received global attention with the start of a major outbreak in Brazil in March 2015, which then spread to many countries in Central and South America and the Caribbean. The outbreak was associated with higher incidences of microcephaly (a condition which results in a small brain in the fetus) as well as the increased neurological symptoms such as Guillain-Barré syndrome and neuropathies in adults and children infected with the virus. On February 1, 2016, Zika virus outbreak was designated a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC) by the World Health Organization (a classification a step before a disease is declared as pandemic). Between 2015 and 2017, nearly 550,000 suspected and 175,000 confirmed Zika virus cases were reported, which included nearly 2,700 cases of microcephaly in Brazil alone. The outbreak had subsided by mid-2017; however, by late 2019, the Zika virus has been reported from at least 87 countries across the world.

The earliest evidence of Zika virus in India is in 1952-1953. The prevalence studies conducted by the National Institute of Virology, Pune, in different parts of India, had detected the antibodies against the Zika virus from humans.

Zika in India

The first two outbreaks of Zika virus infections in India were reported in 2017. This included three human cases from Ahmedabad, Gujarat (January-February, 2017) and one case from Krishnagiri district of Tamil Nadu (July 2017). There were two more outbreaks in 2018 from Madhya Pradesh (130 cases) and Rajasthan (159 cases). In 2021, at least three Zika virus outbreaks have been reported. In Kerala (at least 89 cases) and then in Maharashtra (Around 12 cases), both in July, and most recently from Uttar Pradesh in October-November, 2021 (nearly 110 confirmed cases till now).

Zika virus is primarily a mosquito-borne illness, transmitted by the Aedes mosquitoes (which transmit chikungunya and dengue). However, Zika virus is transmitted from infected mother to fetus during pregnancy, through blood and other body floods and organ translation as well as sexual contact. Most people do not develop any symptoms; however, a few may develop fever, rashes, redness in eye, muscle and joint pain, headache, and generalised fatigue.

It is a mild illness for all age groups except for the pregnant women, whose fetus may develop congenital malformation, especially abnormal brain development, microcephaly and other related neurological outcomes.

The symptoms are very similar to other common viral illnesses. Infection is suspected if there is ongoing Zika virus transmission in the area, travel history or contact history with a confirmed case. The laboratory confirmation is done from blood or urine samples.

There is no licensed vaccine to prevent disease and no specific treatment available. People are advised to take rest, eat well and drink plenty of fluids.

Need to step up

The current reports of Zika virus outbreaks are not a matter of immediate concern for citizens in India. However, knowing that the vector for Zika virus, the Aedes mosquito is present in all States of India, there is a need for stepping up preventive and public health measures. India should use the recent disease outbreaks as an opportunity to strengthen the disease surveillance system and health data recording and reporting systems in the country. The laboratory capacity for COVID-19, developed in the last 18 months, needs to be optimally used to conduct testing for other emerging infections.

One of the key considerations is that the outbreak which had started in Brazil in 2015 was caused by a new variant of Zika virus, termed as American lineage. Though originated from South Asian lineage, it has crucial mutation S139N, attributed to higher incidences of microcephaly and other neurological conditions. All previous outbreaks in India have been due to South-East Asian lineage and no case of microcephaly has been reported from the country. However, there is a need for a systematic surveillance of evolutionary trends in Zika virus, which can be built upon newly developed genetic sequencing capacity for SARS CoV2.

Considering most Indian states have reported Zika virus for the first time, there is a need for enhanced surveillance and equipping laboratories with testing kits for Zika virus. In areas where cases are reported, active case findings and surveillance and mosquito control measures (elimination of breeding sites and the public awareness campaigns, especially for specially for pregnant women should be prioritised. It is also the time to ensure coordinated actions between the State government and municipal corporation to develop joint action plans against vector borne diseases and share responsibilities for public health actions.

The emergence and re-emergence of viral diseases is partly unavoidable. However, with a stronger public health system , application of principles of epidemiology and use of data, their impact can be minimised.

(Chandrakant Lahariya, a physician-epidemiologist, is a vaccines and health systems specialist. His forthcoming book ‘The Lighthouse of Peeragarhi: What We Need, To Prevent Diseases And Protect Health’ is scheduled for release in 2022.)

Fighting mosquito-borne diseases: work in progress

More tools are available to prevent some diseases caused by mosquitoes

Mosquito-borne diseases have been a scourge for thousands of years, with huge armies defeated, and economies shattered. We were therefore relieved to read reports announcing an effective malaria vaccine, following clinical trials in Burkina Faso conducted by the University of Oxford, the Serum Institute of India and others. This West African country has a long and hot season followed by monsoon rains, when mosquitoes emerge in huge swarms. The R21 vaccine has shown an efficacy of 77%, and targets the ‘circumsporozite’ protein (CSP) of the malarial parasite, Plasmodium falciparum. The sporozite stage of this parasite secretes CSP. Mosquito bites transfer the CSP and sporozites into the human bloodstream, and the CSP nudges the parasite towards the liver, where it enters liver cells, matures and proliferates. The release of mature merozites marks the onset of the symptoms of malaria.

Efficient vaccines

The WHO has just cleared another vaccine, called Mosquirix, from Glaxo Smith Kline (GSK) of the U.K. With the involvement of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, the vaccine has been tested in Kenya, Malawi and Ghana on over 800,000 children and shows an efficiency of over 50% in the first year, but dropping as time progresses. The Global Vaccine Alliance (GAVI) is planning to purchase the vaccine for countries that request it. (See a report by Apoorva Mandavilli published in New York Times). Bharat Biotech of Hyderabad has entered into a deal with GSK to develop this vaccine in India, with a dedicated facility at Bhubaneswar.

Another rapidly spreading disease is dengue. It is spread by Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, which happily grow in small stagnant pools of water, such as in discarded tyres. Four serotypes of the dengue virus are found. Serotypes make vaccine development difficult, as a different vaccine is needed against each serotype. A vaccine against dengue, DENGVAXIA, from Sanofi Pasteur, is approved in several countries and shows efficacies ranging from 42% to 78% against the four serotypes of the virus.

Fighting dengue

In India, Zydus Cadilla has been developing a DNA Vaccine against dengue. Dr. Easwaran Sreekumar at the Rajiv Gandhi Centre for Biotechnology, Thiruvananthapuram has modelled a consensus of the four serotypes, which is the basis for Zydus Cadilla’s DNA vaccine, using a platform that the company successfully developed for their COVID-19 vaccine.

Using parasites

Other innovative methods to fight dengue have been in the pipeline. One particularly interesting strategy involves a bacterium, Wolbachia pipientis, an intracellular parasite commonly found in many insects, but not in the dengue-carrying mosquito. When introduced into this mosquito’s cells, this parasite competes successfully against other parasites such as the viruses that cause dengue, chikungunya, yellow fever and Zika.

Aedes mosquitoes, doped with Wolbachia in the laboratory, are released in localities where the disease is prevalent. They quickly spread the bacterium to native Aedes mosquitoes, and the incidence of new dengue cases starts to decline. In a controlled release study in Djakarta, researchers from the Gadjah Mada University placed clusters of Aedes mosquito eggs infected with Wolbachia in 12 localities of the city in December 2017 (9 other localities served as controls – no Wolbachia released). By the time the study was halted in March 2020 due to the pandemic, the 12 localities registered 77% fewer cases of Dengue fever compared to the control localities. The intensity of the fever was less, too, with an 86% drop in hospitalisations due to Dengue.

Prevention of disease

Another way of preventing, rather than curing, mosquito-borne diseases is to accurately predict the next outbreak, and focus your healthcare and mosquito control machinery accordingly.

Both mosquitoes and the Plasmodium parasite need warm, moist weather to flourish. Using data continuously gathered by environmental satellites such as the NOAA-19, scientists at ICMR’s National Institute of Malaria Research have built elaborate models that correlate monthly rainfall data and data on annual state-wise incidence of dengue and malaria with the El-Nino Southern Oscillation, which influences global atmospheric circulation. The result is an early warning tool that forecasts the start of an outbreak and the dynamics of its progression, along with estimates of the likely number of cases. Therefore, health authorities can begin cautionary measures, several weeks in advance, to minimise the impact of an outbreak. This information is currently available for Indian States. Refining it to the district level should be the next step.

Gilts for all

How will the new scheme allow small investors to buy or sell government securities? Why were the three different ombudsman schemes repealed?

The story so far: The RBI had in February announced proposals for the Retail Direct Scheme for investors in government securities and the Integrated Ombudsman Scheme. The schemes were unveiled by the Prime Minister on November 12.

What is the Retail Direct Scheme?

Under the Retail Direct Scheme, small investors can now buy or sell government securities (G-Secs), or bonds, directly without having to go through an intermediary like a mutual fund. It is similar to placing funds in debt instruments such as fixed deposits in banks. However, the same tax rules apply to income from G-Secs. But, with the Government being the borrower, there is a sovereign guarantee for the funds and hence zero risk of default. Also, government securities may offer better interest rates than bank fixed deposits, depending on prevailing interest rate trends. For example, the latest yield on the benchmark 10-year government securities is 6.366%. India’s largest lender, State Bank of India, offers 5.4% on deposits of less than ₹2 crore for a tenure of five to 10 years.

How can individuals access G-Sec offerings?

Investors wishing to open a Retail Direct Gilt account directly with the RBI can do so through an online portal set up for the purpose of the scheme. Once the account is activated with the aid of a password sent to the user’s mobile phone, investors will be permitted to buy securities either in the primary market or in the secondary market. The minimum amount for a bid is ₹10,000 and in multiples of ₹10,000 thereafter. Payments may be made through Net banking or the UPI platform. Retail participants would be bidding for the securities under the “non-competitive segment of primary auctions of Government Securities and Treasury Bills”, the RBI said in a November 12 notification.

Why was it necessary to introduce this scheme?

The RBI said the scheme would help “broaden the investor base and provide retail investors with enhanced access to the government securities market — both primary and secondary.” It said the scheme was a “major structural reform placing India among select few countries which have similar facilities”. This scheme, among others, would “facilitate smooth completion of the Government borrowing programme in 2021-22”.

The Government intends to borrow up to ₹12 lakh crore this year ending March 31, 2022. The significant spike in borrowing — that is expected to spur infrastructure and social funding — follows a steep decline in the economy last fiscal. The Union Government, hence, wishes to broaden the base of investors signing up for bond purchases. The added benefit of the Government accessing retail investors could be the freeing up of room for companies to mop up funds from institutional investors; funds that may otherwise have been cornered by the government to fund its expenses.

Why is the RBI setting up an Integrated Ombudsman?

Prior to the introduction of this scheme, the RBI had three different ombudsman schemes to aid dispute resolution with respect to banks, NBFCs, and non-bank pre-paid payment issuers (PPIs). They were operated by the RBI through 22 ombudsman offices. With the introduction of the integrated scheme, the earlier ones stand repealed. When the regulator unveiled the proposal for an Integrated Ombudsman in February, it said it wished to make dispute resolution more “simpler, efficient and responsive”. Hence the proposal to integrate the three ombudsman schemes and introduce the centralised processing of grievances. This, it said, was intended to make the process of redress of grievances easier “by enabling customers to register their complaints under the integrated scheme, with one centralised reference point”. The RBI would appoint the Ombudsman and a Deputy Ombudsman for three years. Complaints may be made either physically to the Centralised Receipt and Processing Centre or the RBI’s offices; or electronically through the regulator’s complaint management system (

What about grievances pending adjudication?

Though the three earlier schemes have been repealed, the RBI clarified that the adjudication of pending complaints, appeals and execution of the awards passed “shall continue to be governed by the provisions of the respective Ombudsman Schemes and instructions of the Reserve Bank issued thereunder”.

Pritam the unlikely hero

Takes maiden gold in the 74kg freestyle category

Railways’ wrestler Pritam emerged as an unexpected hero as he claimed his maiden gold medal in the competitive 74kg freestyle weight category at the National wrestling championships here on Saturday.

Pritam, a 25-year-old from Rohtak, defeated World junior championships bronze medallist Yash Tushir 11-0 in the summit clash to win by technical superiority. Yash had defeated veteran World championships bronze medallist Narsingh Yadav, who earlier edged past experienced former Asian champion Amit Dhankar, in the semifinals.

“My preparation was good. I am delighted to win my first gold medal after a bronze (in 74kg) and a silver (in 79kg). I won all my bouts on technical superiority. That gives me a lot of confidence,” said Pritam.

Gourav Baliyan, another World junior bronze medallist, beat Asian silver medallist Jitender Kinha, who made a comeback after a knee surgery, 5-3 to take the 79kg crown.

Services bagged the freestyle team championship.

The medallists: Freestyle: Men: 57kg: Gold: Aman (Har), Silver: Abhishek (Del), Bronze: Harvinder Singh (SSCB), Abba Saheb (RSPB).

65kg:Gold: Rohit (SSCB), Silver: Sharvan (SSCB), Bronze: Pradeep (RSPB), Manoj Kumar (UP).

74kg:Gold: Pritam (RSPB), Silver: Yash Tushir (Del), Bronze: Preet Singh (Chd), Narsingh Yadav (Mah).

79kg: Gold: Gourav Baliyan (RSPB), Silver: Jitender Kinha (RSPB), Bronze: Pradeep (SSCB), Vinod Kumar (SSCB).

92kg: Gold: Vicky (SSCB), Silver: Monu (Del), Bronze: Jony (HP), Pruthviraj Patil (SSCB).

125kg: Gold: Shivraj (Mah), Silver: Mohit (Har), Bronze: Satinder (SSCB), Dinesh (Har).


The News Editorial Analysis 14th November 2021


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